Portlandia, the IFC comedy about a certain city in the Pacific Northwest that’s perpetually stuck in the 90s, launched its first season — the second season premieres tonight — with an episode featuring a couple dining in a restaurant who want to know everything about the chicken they’re considering eating.
A sensible concern in any other circumstance, the persistence of the diners to get further acquainted with their prospective meal led them to a local farm run by a hypnotic farmer with a cult-like following. Not all chickens are raised with the kind of attentive — yet creepy — care as the farm seen on the show. And that’s not exactly a good thing.
Nearly 8.8 billion chickens were slaughtered in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), not including male chicks that are culled shortly after hatching, a gruesome industry practice caught on undercover video and reported on by TreeHugger.com.
Most chicken raised in the United States also doesn’t arrive from the Pacific Northwest. The majority of poultry operations are concentrated in the American South with large producers in 26 states in total. Oregon is not among them.
Unlike the free-roaming Portlandia’s “Colin,” who eats hazelnuts, among other healthy things, most chicken sold in the United States are raised in large-scale, high-density facilities, dubbed “factory farms” by animals rights and environmental activists. These high-volume operations are the result of the consolidation of the poultry industry in the last couple decades of the 20th century. They are intended to be cost-saving for both producer and consumer, but these practices do take a toll on both the environment and the animals, with the birds often crammed into small cages to limit their movement and enhance their size.
Large-scale livestock operations can be breeding grounds for disease. Factory farming in the United States has also result in a limited gene pool, according to a research team from Purdue University. Less genetic diversity means a increased likelihood of a new disease to which the birds have no resistance devastating the entire flock. Such conditions pose a potential hazard not only for the animals themselves, but also for public health given that these chickens could be carriers of the deadly H5N1 virus, better known as bird flu.
For this reason, between 50 and 80 of all antimicrobials used in the United States are actually added to animal feed rather than being used to treat sick people or animals, according to a publication by Johns Hopkins University.
Waste from these kinds of operations can also have a major impact on the environment. In 2008, chicken farms produced eight times more ammonia emissions than oil refineries and steel mills combined, as reported by TreeHugger.com’s Brian Merchant. Greenhouse gas emissions from all livestock operations (not just chickens) account for 18 percent of the human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.
These operations also are heavy consumers of water and agricultural resources, given the number of animals that need to be fed. At the same time, they are a major source of water pollution as well, which has a direct result on people living in proximity to these operations. For example, according to the National Resources Defense Council, runoff from chicken and hog waste in the mid-Atlantic led to a deadly algae outbreak that killed millions of fish and caused “skin irritation, short-term memory loss and other cognitive problems in local people.”
So given all of this information, why would anyone ask where their chicken comes from? The answer is that not all poultry arrives from large-scale industrial agriculture operations. The movement toward organic, locally sourced food is not exclusive to produce, but also includes livestock.
Free-range, organically fed chickens tend to be healthier than their conventionally raised counterparts and less vulnerable to disease outbreaks. Heritage chicken breeders, poultry farmers that preserve rare and endangered breeds of chicken, are also doing their part by maintaining the genetic diversity of the species.
The “organic” label has been occasionally misrepresented, however, as evidenced by this hidden camera footage from a commercial hatchery. Many organic operations in the U.S., however, are certified by a number of organizations and government agencies, including the USDA.
So this takes us back to the original question: Where does your chicken come from? If you buy your chicken in nugget form, chances are it’s from a large-scale poultry farm in the American South. Buying a whole bird that doesn’t have organic on the label come from the same kinds of producers. But if you’re in a restaurant that claims to serve organically fed, locally raised chicken, it doesn’t hurt to ask for details. Just don’t follow your bird’s trail all the way back to the farm.
Top photo: Corbis Images; Bottom photo: Getty Images